As is customary, Bwog sent its Arts Editor to opening night of the Varsity Show in order to catch the scoop and write the show’s first review. This year, freshly minted Arts Editor Sarah Kinney was up for the challenge. Here is Bwog’s comprehensive review of the 123rd Annual Varsity Show, representing the compiled views of all Bwog staffers (as well as some of Kinney’s personal thoughts).
While waiting in the will-call line for the 123rd Annual Varsity Show outside of Lerner on Broadway, Debora Spar herself walked up to chat with the woman in line right in front of me. I turned around to my fellow Bwoggers in shock. “Holy shit,” I said to them, all of us murmuring and slyly taking photos. “That’s DSpar.” It was in that moment I knew I was in for quite the evening.
This year’s Varsity Show, A Tale of Two Colleges, was co-written by Amelia Arnold (BC ’17) and Mark Lerner (CC ’18), directed by Kyle Marshall (CC ’17), and produced by Rachel Andrews (BC ’19) and Alana Koenig (BC ’18). The Broadway-style music was composed by Simon Broucke (CC ’19) and Max Gumbel (CC ’18) and the moves were choreographed by Annie Block (CC ’19). As I settled into my fancy third row press seat, I looked up and realized—for the second time in the past ten minutes—that Debora Spar was right in front of me, sitting front and center in the very first row. The lights dimmed, and the show began.
A Tale of Two Colleges focuses on DSpar’s decision to leave Barnard to become president of Lincoln Center—a move that the Columbia community has scrutinized to no end. However, the Varsity Show reworked the story of DSpar’s departure to include a key detail that shapes the plot of the show: in her final minutes as president of Barnard College, DSpar accepts a buyout offer from Columbia University, thereby merging Barnard and Columbia into one. Chaos ensues as Barnard students attempt to get their school back.
The opening scene of the Varsity Show establishes our four main characters—Liv, a CC senior (India Beer, BC ’20); Zoe, a Barnard senior (as well as president of Barnard SGA and Liv’s best friend) (Lauren Wilmore, BC ’20); Robert Goldberg, the interim president of Barnard (Jacob Kaplan, CC ’20); and DSpar, the outgoing president of Barnard (Rachel Greenfeld, BC ’19). All four young actors were captivating, but Greenfeld without a doubt carried the show. Her portrayal of DSpar was hilarious, witty, and utterly spot-on.
Liv and Zoe spend scenes one and two dealing with all their senior feels and wondering how the next few weeks before graduation will pan out. As the two girls discuss senior scramble, we learn one very key detail: both girls are bisexual. Yay for representation? I guess we’ll just have to see where this goes.
Act I progresses by establishing the story arc in a variety of settings: DSpar’s office, the WBAR studio, Roone Auditorium, and even Tom’s. It becomes apparent that there are two main groups—the Barnard students who just want their college back, and the Columbia students who just want to reconcile the situation. This dichotomy works for the sake of the plot, but is unrepresentative of the true perspectives of students on campus. Some Barnard girls prefer to stay on their side of the street, not associating very much with CC students (or SEAS, for that matter). Other Barnard girls view themselves as very much a part of Columbia, considering Lerner just as much of a home as they do Diana. The vast majority, however, are somewhere in the middle. Presenting all Barnard girls as having just one perspective on the Barnard-Columbia relationship greatly simplifies the issue. As tensions between Liv and Zoe grow after Zoe calls Liv a traitor (for attempting to benefit from the merger), this battle of perspectives really takes charge.
The acting, singing, and dancing in Act I was surely energetic—but sometimes overzealousness can lead to missing the mark. Technical and logistical factors, such as the inability of the cast to enunciate while both speaking and singing and/or poorly placed mics, meant that a lot of the dialogue and lyrics went over the audience’s heads. Which is highly unfortunate, considering many of the one-liners carried the humor of the show. Shoutout to the merging of WBARbeque and Bacchanal into “WBARcchanal,” the hypothesis that “the dead magnolia was an inside job,” and the accusation that “Bwog is fake news.” Many, if not all, of the Varsity Show’s one-liners (of those I were able to hear) were absolutely hilarious. I like to believe that the rest of the show had the same potential—if only we could understand what the actors were saying.
The most remarkable scene of Act I was the performance of “CU State of Mind” at Tom’s. The scene starts with Liv sitting on a Tom’s barstool complaining to CCSC President Gavin (Tom Phelan, CC ’20) about the Barnard buyout and her drama with Zoe. Both are wearing tap shoes. Both are clearly drunk. Amidst their bickering, the song kicks off with a spectacular one-liner: Gavin says, “I can’t believe I’m agreeing with the wrestling team on anything… but I should have gone to state school.” With a leap from their seats and more than a little backup from the rest of the ensemble, the entire casts pulls off one hell of a dance break—complete with chair twirling, time steps, and Joel-Isaac Musoki (CC ’20) playing the saxophone live on stage. Cheesey? Yes. Cliché? Absolutely. Entertaining? You bet your ass.
(I would also like to point out that it was during this scene that I truly recognized Francisco Alvidrez (CC ’19) as the unsung hero of the Varsity Show. His character’s official name was Rex, but in this scene he played a Tom’s waiter. I swear Alvidrez has got to be eight feet tall and weigh 100 pounds; watching him spend the entire scene overdramatically attempting to balance a dozen milkshakes while everyone around him was twirling, running, jumping, and singing left me roaring. His character presence throughout the play was consistently understated and refreshing.)
Unfortunately, this dance-crazy high does not carry over into Act II, which opens with a dance battle between the Barnard girls and the CC gang in front of the Barnard gates. This is the most cringe-worthy scene of the entire show. A good dance battle is just like good Halal; it’s only enjoyable if it’s authentic. This one just feels awkward, forced, and painfully drawn out. One Bwogger even described it as an “oxycotin dream.” There are many ways to turn a feud into a song, and the writers of the Varsity Show are talented enough to have come up with something better. They simply didn’t. I do have to say, though, there is one redeemable moment of this scene: watching the ever-charming Gus O’Connor (CC ’20) perform an epic heel-click as he leaps across the stage.
The next scene brings us to the CPS office, where Liv and Gavin are both awaiting their respective appointments with Columbia psychologists. Unexpectedly, out of all the opportunities for the Varsity Show to do something problematic, this scene is the one with which Bwog struggled the most. The portrayal of the CPS receptionist as incompetent, fumbly, and frazzled is simply baseless. Humor only resonates if it’s based on relatable experiences. And while yes, the ineptitude of the Columbia administration and bureaucracy is definitely relatable, CPS is actually one of the few departments here at Columbia that deserves some respect and recognition. This scene shows Liv breaking out into song in the CPS waiting room then going on her merry way, trivializing how we deal with mental illness. While it’s clearly difficult to appropriately ride the line between being offensive and funny when it comes to serious issues, I was disappointed with how the Varsity Show portrayed such a gruelling process.
It’s at about this point in the show where the audience is clearly getting anxious. What is going to happen to Barnard and Columbia? Will the two schools break apart and go back to the way things were? Or has Columbia swallowed Barnard forever? It isn’t until the second to last scene, set at Senior Toast, that we get our answer. And while I don’t want to include any spoilers, I will say this: the resolution is… anticlimactic. I was fully convinced that Liv was going to steal DSpar’s self portrait and put it up for auction on Barnard Buy | Sell | Trade to acquire enough money to buy back Barnard. But instead, our suspension of disbelief is shattered; the stakes of the decision to resplit Barnard and Columbia are inconsequential, if not nonexistent. The plot resolution is rushed, leaving me asking, “Wait, what just happened?” One minute Liv is smoking a joint with DSpar by the Barnard gates, and the next minute a bunch of tipsy seniors win back Barnard College. Five minutes later the show is over (after an emotional graduation scene, of course). And while I’m not necessarily sure I want another half hour of Varsity Show, I certainly want a more thorough ending.
Oh, also. Remember that little tidbit I included about both Liv and Zoe being bisexual? At least that subplot was resolved. (No spoilers!)
The most satisfying part of this year’s Varsity Show was the fact that I spent the entire show sitting directly behind both DSpar and Goldberg. At the beginning of the show, DSpar was excitedly taking pictures of her character on stage, like a mom watching her toddler perform her first ballet steps. However, by the end of the first act, she was slouched in her seat, arms crossed. A little uncomfortable there, Debora? I don’t blame you. (Well, I don’t blame you for feeling uncomfortable. I do blame you for a lot of— well, nevermind.) A Tale of Two Colleges made no effort to hold back on calling out DSpar for her corporate, elitist behavior as Barnard president, blaming her directly for “the death of Maggie,” for being a “corporate sellout,” and for doing nothing but attempt to “inspire the cis white women of Barnard to pursue their dreams!” Even under dimmed lights, the real DSpar sitting right in front of me was visibly restless and uneasy. Goldberg, on the other hand, was difficult to pin down. On campus, Columbia students have yet to characterize Goldberg into a true figure with defining character traits and mannerisms. Hell, he doesn’t even have a nickname. That’s why Goldberg’s character in the show—an old white man who tries desperately to relate to the “kids”—seemed somewhat random. That being said, Kaplan’s portrayal of Goldberg was still pretty damn hilarious.
A Tale of Two Colleges is without a doubt worth seeing, even if just for the fact that the Varsity Show is kind of a meme now. Cramming a whole year of Columbia shenanigans into two hours is no small feat, but the decision to focus on DSpar’s departure definitely provided an interesting angle. Yes, there was plenty of room for improvement, but there always is. At the end of the night, the entire auditorium pulsed with spirit—and that’s what matters. And sitting directly behind DSpar, Goldberg, and even Deantini really drove home for me the overarching theme of this year’s Varsity Show: the relationship between Columbia students and the administration. Without a doubt, the best part of the night was watching them sit through two hours of being roasted by Columbia’s oldest performing arts tradition.
All photos via yours truly (Sarah Kinney)